The World

Are Mexico’s Cartels Terrorists?

How an official U.S. designation could backfire.

Members of the National Guard stand guard near La Morita ranch.
Members of the National Guard stand guard near La Morita Ranch on Nov. 4.
Herika Martinez/Getty Images

On Tuesday, during an interview with Bill O’Reilly, President Donald Trump confirmed he will designate Mexican cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). “I’ve been working on that for the last 90 days”, Trump told O’Reilly. “Designation is not that easy. You have to go through a process, and we are well into that process.”

Although it is not yet official, Trump’s decision is not entirely unexpected. Republican members of Congress have been pursuing the designation for years. In 2011, Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul tried to introduce legislation on the matter. McCaul failed, but the issue persisted. Early this year, two Republican congressmen, Chip Roy and Mark Green, sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo again calling for the formal FTO designation for the cartels. A couple of weeks later, Trump told Breitbart he was “very seriously” considering the resolution. On Tuesday he told O’Reilly he would “absolutely” proceed.

Mexican officials are having none of it. Foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard, who led the negotiating team that averted Trump’s tariff threats last summer, immediately pushed back. “Mexico will not allow any action that violates our national sovereignty,” Ebrard tweeted. “We shall be firm. Cooperation should be based on mutual respect.” Mexico’s Senate majority leader, Ricardo Monreal, joined in, calling Trump’s suggestion “inadmissible.” Congresswoman Gabriela Cuevas accused Trump of playing politics with Mexico’s national security. “Mexico is not your electoral platform.” Cuevas tweeted.

But Trump’s announcement did not face universal animosity in Mexico. In fact, some of the country’s most recent victims of cartel violence have been hoping for precisely this kind of step. The Mexican American Mormon fundamentalist LeBaron family, who earlier this month saw six children and three women murdered and eight others badly wounded in northern Mexico at the hands of a still-unidentified group of armed men likely related to a local cartel, recently created a formal petition to the White House asking Trump to designate the cartels as terrorist organizations.

“We cannot afford to continue the same failed policies used to combat organized crime,” the petition reads. “They are terrorists, and it’s time to acknowledge it!” On Tuesday, after news of Trump’s decision had spread, I asked family spokesman Bryan LeBaron for a reaction. He seemed stunned that Trump had responded with such celerity. “The United States and President Trump have begun to recognize the gravity of the situation,” LeBaron said. “We have an enemy in common. The time has come to end the terrorist cartels.”

There are currently more than 60 designated groups on the State Department’s FTO list. These range from well-known global terror organizations like al-Qaida and ISIS to more localized groups like Colombia’s FARC and Peru’s Shining Path. Designation bans any U.S. citizen from providing support to the group and bans the group’s members and representatives from entering the United States. More than that, designation is a powerful symbolic step, one the Trump administration has already made controversial use of in the case of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.

If Trump keeps his word and designates certain Mexican cartels as terrorist organizations, he will be granting the United States government a series of extraordinary tools that could have serious and unexpected consequences for the relationship between the two countries, especially in the hands of an administration that has long sought to vilify Mexico. According to former Mexican Ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhán, these consequences could include reduced bilateral cooperation between the two governments, the suspension of ties between the countries’ financial sectors, and the restriction of imports. Sarukhán, who is adamantly opposed to the terrorist designation, also questions whether Mexican cartels, however violent, should indeed be treated as terrorists if they do not actively pursue any political motive.

According to Sarukhán: “Mexican organized crime does not have—as opposed to Colombia’s FARC, for example—an ideological or political agenda. It doesn’t wish to destroy the status quo but rather to maximize profit.” If Mexican cartels indeed lack a political agenda, labelling them as terrorists could be counterproductive. “Like catching an elephant with a mousetrap,” said Sarukhan.

Not everyone agrees. For journalist Ioan Grillo, an expert on the reach of the cartels’ violence and their expanding power, there is an argument to be made for the relevance of the terrorist label. “They can be [considered terrorists] because they kill innocent civilians for broader goals, including pressuring the government and controlling political territory,” Grillo told me after Trump’s announcement.

Adrián LeBaron is also convinced Mexican cartels deserve the terrorist label. LeBaron, whose saw daughter Rhonita and four young grandchildren shot and then burned to death in the Sonoran Desert, will meet Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador early next week to discuss the investigation of the massacre. When asked about his family’s call to designate the cartels as FTOs, LeBaron did not hesitate. “We want to ask the world to name what happened to my children and my loved ones. Seventeen people shot. How do you call that?” LeBaron said, trembling with grief in an interview on Mexican radio. “If that’s not terrorism, then what is it? I need to explain to my wife and children and grandchildren what that should be called. Help me.”

And yet, while LeBaron’s overwhelming grief deserves profound respect, the terrorist designation itself deserves to be debated thoroughly before Trump officially takes such a consequential step. Would the United States still insist Mexico is a safe country to which it can send thousands of migrants to wait out their asylum processes if it designates some of the country’s criminal organizations as terrorists? Would the Trump administration also pursue action against gun manufacturers and sellers that have enabled, through America’s permissive gun laws, Mexico’s carnage?

There are no easy answers.